A century ago, on an April night in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, a world came to an end. When RMS Titanic, the largest ship on earth, struck that iceberg and sank, killing 1,500 people (and a very high percentage of the poorer passengers), the disaster became one of those few truly landmark events before which things were one way and after which things were quite another.
There is a good bit of new scientific research into the different forces at work in the Atlantic that season — forces that would have increased the danger of icebergs and that may have affected the visual perceptions of the Titanic from nearby ships that might have helped with the rescue, making it look smaller and farther away and therefore unreachable.
It’s all fascinating, but it all underscores, rather than undercuts, the great lesson of the disaster: that no matter how smart we think we are, how skilled, how technologically advanced, we remain at the mercy of events beyond our control. Whether it’s the patterns of the tides or the distortions of vision at sea, there will always be something that we can’t account for, something that will elude even the greatest of minds or the sincerest of hearts.
Writing in 1955, Walter Lord understood the significance of the subject of his classic A Night to Remember. “Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence,” Lord observed. “Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. In retrospect, there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right. The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves.”
It seems fair to argue that the 20th century really began the night the Titanic sank. Two years later came the Great War, and the tragedy of Versailles, and the rise of Hitler, and the splitting of the atom, and so on. Heck, even Downton Abbey started with news of the sinking — so it must be important.
Yet perhaps the most interesting part of the centennial of the Titanic for us now lies in a lesson that seems even more relevant in the 21st than it did in the 20th centuries: that technology, like any other human endeavor, is flawed and subject to disaster. We can never innovate nor create ourselves totally out of harm’s way.